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Breaking Bread: Coastal Cuisine in Tunisia

posted on: Sep 10, 2019

From perfectly prepped couscous to generous helpings of harissa, Tunisian cuisine is all about colour, flavour and abundance. In the coastal town of Nabeul, a family meal becomes a feast when guests are involved — and extra helpings are inevitable.

Breaking Bread: Coastal Cuisine in Tunisia

SOURCE: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

BY: GARY LATHAM

The fishmonger locks eyes with me as he whacks a fat grouper against the tiled counter. A fishy droplet of water bounces onto my bottom lip as he yells something in Arabic. I nod cluelessly, but it turns out he’s trying to tell me the fish is still alive and, therefore, freshly caught.

We’re surrounded by a clamour of hagglers and tradesmen boasting about their wares. Strings of tinsel and fairy lights, left over from last year’s New Year celebrations, are strung up around us, and a ginger cat speeds past our feet.

We buy a fish large enough for a family of eight and head outside towards the vegetable stalls. The local souk here in Nabeul, a coastal town in northeastern Tunisia, is endearingly chaotic, even at this early hour in the morning. Rafik Tatli, a 65-year-old local chef, has been showing me around as we source ingredients for a late lunch with his extended family. For Tunisians, scouring the market for the best produce can be just as important as the cooking itself.

“We show our love with food,” says Rafik, his lips barely moving under his thick, black moustache. “Through food, we are representing our culture and our people. Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

As we meander past the busy outdoor stalls, there’s the occasional push and shove as locals rush around in search of the day’s best produce. The soundtrack to this balmy morning is the buzz of mopeds weaving in and out of the market’s narrow alleyways, and verses of the Qur’an blasting out of an old stereo.

Food is everywhere, in pops of vivid red, green, yellow and orange, and the smell is all-consuming. Garlic, marjoram, carob, carrots, oranges and artichokes are all sold from wooden crates, and scraps from the stalls are quickly seen to by the market’s army of stray cats.

Stallholders shout over each other in a language they like to call Tunisian — a fusion of Arabic and French, with a handful of words borrowed from Italian. Against a graffitied wall, two women in bright red headscarves are grilling green chilli peppers and tomatoes, while opposite them, at a small cafe, two men are whiling away the morning with a cigarette and an espresso.

Rafik is keen to get home and start cooking, so we grab some beans from the waist-high pile, buy a bunch of radishes from the old man in a straw hat with a donkey-drawn cart and make our way over to the kaleidoscopic spice hall.

Spice market in Nabeul

Tunisian food is the amalgamation of many different civilisations; over the centuries the French, Ottomans, Spanish, Italians, Romans and Phoenicians have all had their say in defining what the country’s cuisine is today. The average Tunisian might have a pain au chocolat for breakfast, pasta for lunch and couscous with vegetables for dinner — and it’s this variety that makes the food culture here so exciting. Generally, Rafik tells me, the rule is that the further south you are in the country, the drier the cuisine, with less fish, fewer vegetables and more lentils and red meat. In this coastal corner, however, they’re incredibly proud of their seafood — as my fishmonger friend so passionately demonstrated. And then comes the spice.

“We have a lot of red in our food,” says Rafik. “When a Tunisian man doesn’t see red on his plate, he doesn’t eat!”

He’s referring to harissa, a bright scarlet paste of roasted peppers (in this case, baklouti chillies), along with other flavourings such as garlic, lemon juice and caraway. Thought to have made its way into North African cuisine during Spain’s brief occupation of Tunisia in the 16th century, harissa has become a staple condiment and can be eaten as an appetiser with olive oil-soaked bread, stirred into roasted veg or slathered onto meat.

As we walk further into the spice quarter, we’re surrounded by mounds of red, orange and yellow spices and buckets loaded with lentils, onions, olives, hot peppers and cornichons. Hanging from the ceiling are countless strings of chilli peppers and osbane, an offal sausage that’s Tunisia’s answer to haggis — and which I secretly hope isn’t on the menu later.

To one side, a bearded man in a traditional red chechia hat is grinding paprika at his stall, surrounded by tins, jars and bottles of distilled orange blossom water. The latter is Nabeul’s speciality, its uses ranging from healing ointments to dessert flavouring.

Before long, my stomach is roaring, so I reach into my bag for the tabouna bread I bought earlier. It’s crisp yet soft in the middle, fresh from a domed clay oven. Rafik’s eyes widen with concern as he warns me not to eat too much, promising I won’t be going hungry later on. I can’t help myself, though, and the moment his back is turned, I sneak one more bite.

Bowls of ojja, beans and harissa

Home cooking

When we arrive at Rafik’s, the first thing he does is pour me a glass of aniseed-flavoured pastis. After toasting to our health, he puts on a striped apron, switches on the radio and and starts clanging pans as he gets everything ready on the counter. Rafik’s wife, Fane, who’s originally from Slovenia, darts in and out of the kitchen, keeping their scruffy white dog, Lady, away from the food.

For the main course, Rafik prepares his childhood favourite, fish couscous. “Couscous is for the poor man; couscous is for the rich man. It’s for weddings, funerals and birthdays. It’s for everyone,” he says, before declaring proudly that Tunisia is the only country in North Africa to use any sort of seafood in couscous. He cooks the little grains twice to ensure they’re extra fluffy: first in a large ceramic pot, then in the top half of a copper couscoussier (a special steamer), where they’re cooked by the vapours from vegetables bubbling away underneath.

Rafik adds a little olive oil, which he says creates the perfect consistency, before gently sieving the grains between his fingers, his hands going higher and higher each time as though he’s conducting an orchestra. “This movement is called kaskasa”, he says, watching the grains trickle down. This word, meaning ‘to pound until fine’ in Arabic, is said to be where couscous gets its name.

The fish we bought earlier then goes into the bottom of the couscoussier, where it cooks along with the pumpkin and potatoes in a rich tomato sauce spiked with harissa. Finally, it’s all brought together with the couscous: “Et voilà!”

Next, Rafik makes the ojja Nabeulienne, another local staple of eggs in a spicy, garlic-heavy sauce. It’s a dish that can be left vegetarian or made with prawns or meat; today we’re adding merguez, a spicy lamb sausage. Ojja is often seen by Tunisians as a form of fast food, and — true to form — it’s soon ready to go. Both dishes are wrapped up and placed in the boot of Rafik’s car before we drive, ever so slowly, to his brother Salah’s house.

Rafik buying radishes at the market

Family feast

When we arrive, our host is waiting behind the creaky door of his dar (a traditional Arab home). And in the caravanserai-style, open-air courtyard, we’re joined by his mother-in-law Rafika, wife Shumaisa and their three children, Akram, Hanna and Asma, who range in age from 15 to 26.

As head of the house, Salah is the first to greet me formally, an ear-to-ear grin accentuating his deep-set wrinkles. His salt-and-pepper hair is topped with a chechia, and he’s wearing a maroon and green jebba, the traditional dress worn by men on special occasions. This kind of ceremonious welcome isn’t out of the ordinary here, particularly when overseas guests are involved.

The walls are just as well turned-out, lined with colourful tiles my hosts tell me were made here in Nabeul, the country’s tile-making capital, using patterns and techniques adopted from the Ottomans and the Andalusian Muslims who were exiled to Tunisia. There are stone arches and solid wooden doors decorated with coloured glass and kadhel (Tunisian marble) and drifting in from the street is the faint murmur of someone playing the mizwad, a bagpipe-like instrument.

Just then, the younger members of the family emerge from the kitchen one by one, each clasping a couple of dishes. Rafik’s fish couscous is followed by a seemingly endless flow of plates, including some made by Shumaisa, and a selection of appetisers bought from the market. If there’s one thing Tunisians enjoy more than cooking, it’s feeding their guests.

The table is a plethora of colours: greens from the peppers and the herby lamb mulukhiyah (a thick broth), reds from the chillis and bowls of harissa, and oranges from the fish couscous drenched in tomato sauce and spices, all of which are presented in beautiful blue-and-white ceramic dishes. To wash it all down: jugs of water. Tunisia actually has a long history of winemaking, but you’re more likely to find wine in high-end hotels than family homes, I’m told.

“Now, all of you, leave me alone, I’m hungry!” Salah jokes, before taking his seat midway along the table. It’s customary that the head of the house eats first, so we wait for him to start before following suit. He serves himself a portion of ojja, soaks a piece of bread with sauce before taking that all-important first bite.

For the next couple of minutes, the table becomes a tangle of hands passing plates from one end to the other. Shumaisa, a kindergarten teacher-turned-embroiderer, takes my plate and loads it up with flatbread, a mammoth portion of couscous and a spoonful of lamb. The lamb melts the moment it touches the roof of my mouth, its soup-like sauce, loaded with herbs, flowing over the edge of my plate.

Shumaisa at the table

While trying to mop up the sauce, I ask how often the entire family sits down for dinner. Shumaisa tilts her head down to look at me over her thick, black-framed glasses and, with a solemn headshake, tells me that since the older two children went off to university, these kind of get-togethers mostly take place at weekends or on special occasions.

Just then, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque fills the courtyard and echoes around us. We dig in to plates of spicy mechouia salad, even hotter pickled peppers, the ojja Rafik made earlier, and large broad beans sprinkled with paprika and lemon. As they eat, Salah’s children alternate between listening intently to their father and giggling as they regale each other with stories from school and university.

For the next hour or so, topics of conversation vary from the ins and outs of Tunisian politics to whether the children will be home for dinner the next evening.

“That’s what I love about Ramadan,” Rafik chips in, anticipating the holy holiday that’s approaching next month. “All of Tunisia eats together at the same time.”

Salah follows his brother with a toast, and thanks me for taking the time to explore their beautiful country. I raise my cup with one hand and rub my full stomach with the other. Before I have the chance to politely push away my almost-clean plate, Shumaisa gently puts her hand on mine: “How about some more couscous, dear?” she asks and, without waiting for a response, serves me one last spoonful. Well, I was warned I wouldn’t go hungry, I think, picking up my fork.

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Essentials
Tunisair flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Tunis from around £245 return. Double rooms at Le Royal Hotel Hammamet, about a 30-minute drive from Nabeul, start at £40 on a half-board basis. tunisair.com leroyal.com discovertunisia.com

Read Rafik Tatli’s ojja with merguez recipe here.

Published in Issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller Food.